Command Sergeant Major Michael A. Grinston of U.S. Army Forces Command, a 1986 Walker High School graduate became the second highest command sergeant major in the U.S. Army, said today's soldiers question authority and are in many ways smarter than troops in the past.
He talked to Jasper High students Monday about how much the Army had improved his life for 31 years. Grinston, 50, whose mother, Mary Grinston, and other relatives sat in the audience, spoke and answered questions for about an hour.
Grinston said he is in charge of 220,000 enlisted soldiers. If deployed Guardsmen, Department of Defense civilians and others are included, he is roughly in command over as many as 700,000 people.
His deployments include Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Kosova, where he was involved in active combat. He has deployed in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom twice each, and was also involved in the Army's first deployment of a division headquarters in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq from October 2014 to June 2015.
His awards and decorations include the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, and five Bronze Stars (with two "V" devices). He has earned the Ranger tab, Master Parachutist badge, Air Assault badge, Drill Sergeant Identification badge and the Combat Action badge. He has attended every level of the Noncommissioned Officer Education System and is a graduate of Ranger, Airborne and Air Assault Scholls. He is also a graduate of Drill Sergeant School and the Equal Opportunity Course.
Grinston also earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Maryland University College.
In an interview before Monday's event, Grinston said he was born in Indiana, but his family moved to Jasper when he was 3. (His father, Bill Grinston, is deceased, while his mother still lives in Jasper.) After high school, among some other academic scholarships he had, Grinston took up a scholarship from the high school that would allow him four years at Walker College and the University of Alabama.
He attended Walker College for a year before being talked by a friend into joining Mississippi State in the summer to attend a architecture school - which he realized soon had the pitfall of not being covered by any scholarship. "I thought, 'Well, that wasn't very smart.'"
While home, a recruiter called him up, and noted he could get scholarship money in the Army, serving for a couple of years and then coming out to finish his education. With no military history among his immediate family, he still joined the Army in October 1987 and never turned back.
"I call myself one of the smartest dumb guys I know," he said.
He would renew again and again, until he finally got to 20 years, the milepost where he could actually get a monthly retirement pension in time. "Now, it is about how much I can influence the Army and not just for the good of the U.S., but for the good of the world sometimes. ... It's pretty exciting. And I have a great time. I love my job."
Asked for the highlight of his career, he pointed out "being a first sergeant in combat, and leading soldiers. I don't want that for anyone in the world. I'll be honest with you, if anyone says, we need to go to war, that is a crazy statement. That is not something anybody wants, to include military.
"But the opportunity to lead people in a really bad situation when they really need some great leadership and to do that and then to live through it and to bring as many soldiers home is something you can't replicate anywhere in the world. It builds a bond and a sense of belonging."
In fact, he said many days one could experience "a great sense of accomplishment, and then all of a sudden it can equally one of the most frightening things you've ever seen in your life. It goes in ebbs and flows. You think, 'I'm not going to live through the next two minutes' to 'This is what I've prepared for my entire career.' And then you also go to, 'What a difference I'm making in this country.'
Grinston said what is forgotten sometimes is that around the world, everyone wants the same thing.
"They want to take care of my family. I want to provide for my family. I want something better for my kids than what I had," he said. "When you can help someone from Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else around the world, help them do what you know that you want. That is an amazing thing."
Asked how people overseas view Americans and the U.S., he said when the U.S. soldier's uniform, "when seen around the world, brings hope. We're trusted. They think if we are there, it is going to be OK. 'We may not like you. We know you are the strongest military in the world. But we also know there is hope for our country when you are there.'"
Asked what changes he has seen in the military over the past three decades, he said, "I think the basic soldiers are so much better," even though many people complain about the today's young generation. "They are smart in ways that we weren't. Their skills with technology is unmatched.
"They question a lot, and I'm getting used to it. They challenge authority and they question it. We think, 'Well, they are not as disciplined.' They just need good leadership." Once situations are explained to them, they pick up quickly. As a result, the older military generation needs to get comfortable with their questioning of authority.
Grinston - a lifelong fitness enthusiast who runs 4.5 miles, six days a week, which helps him burn off the stress of the job - notes the physical shape of recruits is a challenge. However, he adds, "I can train anyone who has the will to get the fitness."
Still, he notes recruiters are probably concerned, because those eligible to join the military are dwindling because of the fitness - making the obesity problem a threat to shrinking the pool of people who can qualify for service.
"We can train you to a point, but you have to have some fitness," he said. "The same person who qualifies to join the military is probably the same one who wants to play some professional football, although that is slim. A lot of folks who have a lot of fitness in their background are going to be the ones eligible."
Griston said one reason for his visit is due to one of this biggest fears, a sense of being out touch with our military. More soldiers are coming in because other relatives were in the military. With less civilians with no ties to the military coming, it leads to less understanding between the Army and the civilian population.
"We are becoming a close knit group," with less integration of first-generation military recruits like himself, he said. "People say, 'Thank you for your service, but I'm not sure what your service is.'" Also, those in the Army get busy as well and can forget that they are the American people's army. "I work for you all," he said.
"We've got walls and we have gates. But we need to make sure we tell you what we're doing, because we are your army. That is my biggest fear is that we don't have new folks, civilians. ... We have to stay tied to the people we serve - always. We are the only country that swears an oath to the Constitution. Not a dictator, not a king, but to the Constitution. In my opinion, we have to stay tied to our civilian population, for the people that we serve."
However, he said it "works both ways" and encouraged civilians to ask to visit military bases, which can be allowed at times.
He said the U.S. still had the greatest military in the world. "When I see a strong, tall soldier who is smart and joined the Army for all the right reasons, there is hope that we can make the world a better place."
Grinston was asked during the assembly about the greatest internal threat to the continuity of democracy. He said it was economics.
"If we farm out our debt to other countries, we're in a dangerous world. What if they called us on our debt. That could hurt our economy in a way you've never seen," he said. "The economic superpower is around the horizon, and they are taking charge."